A tune, a dream, a cat

Woman With a Cat c.1875 Renoir

Woman With a Cat c.1875 Renoir

Over the summer I worked on a piece for Chinese instruments. It was a frustrating time, just reading about them and listening to recordings, yet not knowing the nuts and bolts in terms of tuning, range and fingering etc. I couldn’t compose with certainty. The sounds of Chinese instruments are absolutely beautiful, however the issue is how to write for them appropriately.

I remember way back in my Royal College of Music days one of my teachers (it was Mr. X, if you must know) saying that he didn’t care how players made the sounds he wrote for them. It was an attitude I found at the time impressive, but nowadays find completely baffling. Why on earth would one NOT care? Mr. X was speaking at a peculiar moment in music history and he was not alone in his attitude. Therefore one cannot condemn him, just condemn the zeitgeist. And condemnation is easier than understanding where someone is coming from and I prefer trying to work that out.

Anyway, finally I threw up my hands in despair and said to my composer friend Luiz Yudo (from whom the idea had come to write such a piece) that I would simply transcribe what I had done for Western instruments. I was angry and didn’t quite manage to spare him from seeing that, even snapping at him when he put pressure on me not to give up.

After I had this conversation with Luiz, I went to bed and dreamed about the issue of the Chinese ensemble in an oblique, yet none the less clear manner. In the dream I had moved to a new house. It was very tall and there were many rooms and a few people already living there. My space was at the top of this house. One of my former partners was in the dream too and I asked him to wait for me in my new rooms. I was apprehensive however that he would run off, as he was nervous and indeed when I returned he was gone – but only gone in human form, as he had undergone a surreal transformation from former partner to feline quadruped and was now a nervous black cat hiding under a piece of furniture in the dark. When I called to him, he came out from his hiding place, cautious but trusting. I woke up with a familiar melody in my mind and understood that this had to be in my new piece. The cat in the dream WAS the melody actually. I woke at five in the morning, but I was really wide awake. I went straight to the desk and back to studying the fingering charts for the Chinese instruments, knowing what I had to do.

Still in the end, a few days later I gave up, defeated by the practical difficulties involved in the novel instrumentation.

When Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta performed my Magritte Weather at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2000, I was interviewed on stage by the Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh. He asked me a question about the influence of dreams on my work (Magritte Weather had been conceived in a dream and he had spotted the fact in my programme note). It was an awkward moment because I didn’t know how to put into words the considerable influence dreams have on me. Ten years later I give here a good answer to his question.

It was reading Jung back in the late 1960s that first alerted me to the significance of dreams and their influence on human activities. And I think I was introduced to this literature by my piano teacher, the formidable Alan Rowlands.

Now, a note about that tune and the black cat of my dream. Like a cat, I am often anxious and cautious, for no good reason. Hence, perhaps, my empathy with these furry friends. My family tells me that when I was at the nursery I once carried a cat that lived there all the way home and as I was only 4 when I went to school, I can’t have been more than that when the event took place. I only very faintly remember it, but looking back, I mainly wonder at the way children were handled in those days – I think the nurses had given me the cat – such a small boy on his own, no doubt struggling with a nervous cat on a busy street, it wouldn’t occur nowadays I imagine.

With regard to the tune that the cat embodied – the British organist and composer Michael Bonaventure had been staying with me shortly before all this took place. I took the opportunity to play him this tune which had been in my mind for several years. It’s a chorale, and more English than German. Michael is playing in church every Sunday, so I asked him if it was really my tune or just something remembered. He found some phrases a bit familiar, but that was all, so I got the go-ahead to use it.

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